Job Market Paper

            Economic Insecurity and American Political Culture


Drawing on original ethnographic research with Americans in Chapter 13 personal bankruptcy, this paper, based on my dissertation, examines the process through which economic insecurity shapes political culture, which is understood as a process of meaning-making. I take the novel approach of using personal bankruptcy as a research site that provides a window into economic insecurity. This not only allows for a close examination of the processes of economic insecurity, but highlights one of its most understudied aspects: its connection to household debt. Using an ethnographic sample of more than 40 individuals, I establish common patterns of economic insecurity and highlight the social domains it traverses. Then, using a sub-sample of 17 individuals from the original sample (the core sample), I examine how economic insecurity shapes political culture. Within the core sample, I find three distinct semiotic signatures that we can think of as social roles available in the American cultural toolkit. One role, the “young liberal” occurs infrequently in my sample, and although its existence suggests fascinating avenues for future research, I focus on the other two roles in this paper. The two remaining social roles, that I call Archie and Edith in reference to the characters from the 1970s sitcom All in the Family, roughly divide the rest of the sample and share several features such as a context of hard work and a deep story against entitlement. Ultimately, however, Archies and Ediths give different meaning to “the entitled” reflecting differences in their experiences of economic insecurity. For Archies, protracted and causally-vague economic insecurity that often includes supporting adult children places them in the position of head of household under siege. From this position, “the entitled” are more likely to be identified as racial, ethnic, or sexual minorities who are seen as contributing to their besiegement by leveraging their identities to take from the common pot. For Ediths, swift and causally-clear economic insecurity that often includes catastrophic medical events, places them in a position of resignation after a fall from economic grace. From this position, “the entitled” is more likely to take on a generational frame or general frame in which society as a whole is to blame. For Ediths, who feel abandoned by politics, social or cultural solutions are seen as preferable. An immediate political outcome is that Archies were significantly more likely than Ediths be supporters of Donald Trump (both in the 2016 election and more generally), but this research shows that the interaction between economic insecurity and political culture is a long-run process in which patterns of economic insecurity influence the social roles Americans take on in a way that has political consequence.

Read the full paper here.
Kevin Burkett // “Archie Bunker’s Chair” // Taken December 23, 2012 // Smithsonian Museum